Archery Psychology: When kindness is key

Erin Prior analyses the role self-compassion can play in managing your mindset in tricky situations

You wouldn’t insult a teammate for a bad arrow, but self-criticism can be just as damaging as it can lead to a downward spiral in confidence and motivation

At this time of year, archers begin to evaluate their last competitive season. Has their performance lived up to their pre-season expectations? Did they achieve all of their goals? What do they hope to achieve moving forward? In some cases, an archer may have achieved all of their goals and more – however, this is often not the case. Even the most accomplished archer may complete their season feeling unfulfilled.

Athletes can experience a variety of emotional setbacks in sport which can range from poor performance, a performance plateau, or even injury. As a result, coping mechanisms are fundamental for athletes to effectively manage emotionally difficult sporting situations in a way that facilitates a healthier and more successful sporting experience. One of these coping mechanisms is self-compassion.

The concept of self-compassion has been the centre of Eastern philosophy for centuries but is relatively new in the Western world. Self-compassion involves acknowledging one’s emotions rather than avoiding them, and accepting your failures with an understanding attitude. By developing self-compassion, archers can learn to manage their emotions more effectively and therefore improve their performance and motivation.

A balanced perspective makes it easier to assess mistakes and rectify them

Self-compassion has three major components: self-kindness when experiencing failure and disappointment; perceiving one’s experiences as part of a bigger picture (such as seeing one arrow or competition as one part in the puzzle of your archery career as opposed to a ‘make or break’ moment); and being mindful about negative thoughts or emotions by putting them into perspective.

Research suggests that we are often much harsher and more unkind towards ourselves than we would be to others. This self-criticism that many archers indulge in – even after one bad shot – can lead to a decrease in self-esteem, motivation and confidence. These characteristics are fundamental for successful sporting performance, and therefore, by repeatedly berating ourselves for not achieving the perfect shot, we are effectively contributing to our own downfall.

One way archers often criticise themselves is through self-talk, which is defined as what we say to ourselves inside our heads. When being self-critical we often adopt negative self-talk, which is irrational and counterproductive, therefore hindering performance. Of course it’s natural to feel frustrated when a shot goes awry, but what if we could accept this frustration and move on to the next shot with a more positive, performance-enhancing mindset?

While having self-compassion tries to prevent us from becoming our own harshest critic, it does not mean that our failings should go unnoticed or unrectified. In fact, we are encouraged to acknowledge them and become more self-aware to promote growth and change as individuals. By approaching our mistakes with acceptance we are still recognising them, however, the negative emotional impact will be lessened, making it easier to maintain a balanced perspective of the situation. As a result we are more able to assess our mistakes and attempt to improve our future performance – a skill which is invaluable in archery where competitions continue over many hours, or even days.

Self-compassion can help regulate your response to a bad end, keep your head clearer and prevent your performance suffering further

Self-compassion is also thought to be a method of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation involves an individual paying attention to their emotions and managing their intensity and duration, particularly when faced with a stressful situation. This is a skill that all archers attempt on some level – with some being more successful than others. As an example, an archer who shoots a bad end of arrows and proceeds to storm off the line throwing down their bow in frustration is regulating their emotions less effectively, and consequently their performance may continue to suffer, perpetuating the archer’s frustration.

However, an archer who shoots a bad end of arrows and proceeds to walk off the line accepting that they made some mistakes is more likely to have a clear mind to effectively evaluate their performance and consider how to improve for the next end. As you can see, the same scenario can be dealt with very differently, and the difference in how you regulate your emotions may just be the critical element that enhances or hinders your performance.

So, how should you go about exercising some self-compassion and kindness in your day-to-day shooting? Firstly, consider:

What normally causes you to criticise yourself? (For example, bad technique, low score, losing a competition, not achieving goals, and so on.)

What type of language do you use when you make a mistake? (Do you insult yourself, or are you more understanding?)

When you are being highly self-critical, how does this make you feel? Is this effective in improving your performance?

Bad shots happen – but the way you respond to them can have a significant bearing on your mood, and even your performance

Being self-critical is often a negative habit we allow ourselves to indulge in due to frustration, but by considering these questions we can begin to become more aware of our reactions and how they influence our performance. Try these following steps to introduce some self-compassion into your shooting:

Notice: Pay attention to when you are being self-critical – this may involve negative self-talk and/or negative behaviours as a result of frustration. Think about what negative words and phrases you use – this is the start of becoming more self-aware.

Understand: Consider why you are telling yourself these things and what influence this has on your mindset and performance.

Reframe: Reframe these observations in a positive way. It may help to imagine what words of encouragement you may say to a friend in the same situation (such as, ‘It’s frustrating that I had a bad end, but it’s only six arrows and if I focus on executing my shots well, the scores will improve.’)

These steps may seem simple, but they can provide you with a starting point to becoming more self-aware and self-compassionate to bring about a positive change to your mindset while shooting, which can greatly influence your performance.

So, if you’re finding that your self-critical thoughts and emotions are having a detrimental impact upon your shooting, give self-compassion a chance to enhance both your mindset and your performance. Whether you’re evaluating your season, a shot you just made or your day-to-day life, take a minute to be kind to yourself – the benefits will be greatly rewarding! 

This article originally appeared in the issue 122 of Bow International magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online store:

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